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A top Democrat takes up cudgel

Reid battles Bush on Social Security

SEARCHLIGHT, Nev. -- Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, two months into his new job as the Democratic leader, declared Friday that his party is ''winning" the fight against President Bush and his plan to remake Social Security.

Cruising past the desert landscape between Las Vegas and his tiny hometown here, Reid said twice in an interview that Democrats have scored a ''win" against Bush. He backtracked slightly both times, to say that his party is ''winning" in its efforts to protect Social Security from the partial privatization Bush is pushing, based on polls and conversations with other senators.

''It's nice to win -- to be winning," Reid said during an hourlong drive south from Las Vegas to Searchlight, a remote mining town in the Mojave Desert where he spent time during last week's congressional break. ''That gives me satisfaction, not only to win, to beat him -- to be in the process of winning the fight -- but the fact that you know you're doing the right thing."

Many Republicans, however, think victory will be theirs. They point to polls indicating Americans' concern about Social Security's future, and warn that Reid's position could turn voters against Democrats.

Still, Reid, 65, has surprised much of Washington, including many Republicans, with his aggressive, charged-for-battle manner as the leader of the Democratic opposition.

Reid has spent much of his 18-year Senate career as a diligent, low-key legislator, and his conservative voting record has led to speculation that he might be a ready ally for Bush.

When Reid took the minority leader's job after Senator Tom Daschle's defeat in November, some questioned whether the soft-spoken abortion opponent from a ''red state" could effectively lead the diminished ranks of the 44 Senate Democrats. But Reid has established himself as a formidable adversary to the Bush administration and Republican congressional leadership. Reid -- a boxer in his youth, and allegedly at least once the target of an underworld hit -- is displaying political grit learned over more than three decades in Nevada and Washington politics, and he has served notice that he is just gearing up for the fights to come.

Reid said Republicans are making a ''big mistake" by seeking to privatize Social Security, warning, ''It's an issue that has legs." Referring to the ''nuclear option," in which Republicans are considering outlawing filibusters of Bush's judicial nominees, he issued a harsh reminder that the opposition party has historically picked up seats midway through a president's second term, meaning the rules change could wind up helping the Democrats.

''I'm different from a lot of people: I'm not afraid of the nuclear option," Reid said, adding that Democrats could gain anywhere from one to nine seats -- enough to give them back the majority after the 2006 elections. ''If they want to do it, they have the power. But it'll come back to haunt them, big time."

Nevada's senior senator has already caught the attention of Republicans. Conservative talk show hosts are tagging him as the Senate's new ''obstructionist-in-chief," a label used by John Thune to defeat Daschle in South Dakota.

This month, the Republican National Committee fired off a 13-page mailing that took aim at Reid as an out-of-touch ''limousine liberal," citing the $750,000 value of his condominium at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington.

But Reid hasn't been one to respond to intimidation. In the late 1970s, when he was chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, he received regular death threats.

After he found a device designed to detonate his car upon ignition, Reid showed no signs of backing down; tape went up on his home's windows, and Reid and his wife used a remote-control device to start their car.

''I don't think anything scares him, and rightfully so," said Mayor Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas, who fought bitterly with Reid as an attorney representing reputed mafia members before the gaming commission, but has since grown close to his former adversary.

''It's like taking on a fighter who has no quit in him," Goodman added. ''They might try to pummel Harry. He'll take the beating, but they'll rue the day they did it because he will get back at them. He is a man with a long memory, and he's not afraid to take a hit because he'll hit back."

Raised in Searchlight in a shack made from railroad ties, Reid has had a an American-dream rise, with some distinct Sin City twists. He is the son of a hard-rock gold miner whose alcoholism led him to suicide, and a mother who did the wash for local prostitutes. He hitched rides 40 miles at the beginning and end of every week to get to and from his high school, in Henderson.

Reid neither drinks nor gambles, although he has lived his entire life in a state with no shortage of vice. He carries himself with quiet ease, and he speaks in a soft monotone, even when his words are spoken in anger, as they were after the Republican National Committee mailing went out. He is a no-nonsense worker known for rarely saying ''goodbye" at the end of a phone call.

Meeting with about a dozen constituents in his Reno office on Thursday, Reid's voice sometimes barely rose above a whisper. He stood the whole time and didn't pretend to remember one Vietnam veteran who had professed to have met him several times.

But beneath the surface is a shrewd operator who has used a deep knowledge of legislative rules to cut deals in the halls of government he first roamed as a Capitol Hill police officer said Jon Ralston, a veteran Nevada political analyst.

''He is the greatest contrast between a public image and private behavior," Ralston said. ''He seems like a charisma-challenged nebbish. Actually he is an incredibly vicious, ruthless, Machiavellian insider. He's going to stretch the envelope. He is going to use whatever means he has to to get somewhere."

Reid's voting record would seem to leave him ill suited to lead a group of Senate Democrats that includes prominent liberals like John F. Kerry, Edward M. Kennedy, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. He is a Mormon who opposes abortion and supports the rights of gun owners, and he has closely guarded the interests of his home state's mining and gambling industries.

Yet Reid has also been a successful Democrat in a state that's trending toward Republicans. As Daschle's lieutenant in 2001, he was largely responsible for persuading Senator James Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican Party, shifting control of the Senate to the Democrats. Reid cruised to re-election to a fourth term in November, drawing 61 percent of the vote in a state that Bush carried, 50 to 48.

Reid's office in Washington features a 1961 letter from John F. Kennedy, thanking him for starting Utah State University's first Young Democrats club. He fondly recalls a pillowcase tacked on the wall of his childhood home that featured a campaign slogan for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and remembers how his grandmother depended on her monthly ''old-age pension check" -- Social Security.

''This is a program that has been the best social program in the history of the world," Reid said. ''The issue is important because Social Security is ours. . . . They want to destroy the Democrats' most successful political program."

Bush wants younger workers to be able to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes to personal accounts, as part of a restructuring of the program to fix long-term financing problems. But Democrats argue that Social Security will remain fiscally sound for decades, and accuse Republicans of seeking to slash benefits.

Martin Scorsese's 1995 film ''Casino" included a character loosely based on Reid. The character is depicted going toe-to-toe with the mob to stop Robert DeNiro's ''Ace Rothstein" -- based on the real-life convicted sports fixer Frank ''Lefty" Rosenthal -- from getting a gaming license.

Now Reid is leading the opposition to Bush and the Republicans, at a time when Democrats are seeking to find their way in the wake of Kerry's defeat.

He said he is proud to help the minority party fulfill its ''constitutional duty" to slow or stop extreme measures.

But Reid said he is still hoping Bush displays a willingness to deal.

''He doesn't understand legislation. Legislation is the ability to compromise, to build consensus," Reid said. ''I like to make deals, legislative deals. I know a lot of procedures of the Senate. If they want to play those games, I can do that, too."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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